NEW YORK — As most designers scour downtown in search of the best location for a signature store, Nicole Miller has settled in Harlem at N Boutique, becoming one of the first major designers to plug into Harlem’s budding retail scene.
Miller and Iman were to headline an opening night party Monday in the 4,000-square-foot boutique at 114 West 116th Street. Initially, Miller’s company had planned to open a freestanding store with Nikoa Evans, one of N Boutique’s owners. After a prime spot near Fairway’s West 132nd Street location fell through, Evans and her partners decided to go with a multibrand boutique, said Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller.
The company, a member of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce since 1996, was eager to be part of the neighborhood’s retail resurgence and regards N Boutique as the ideal place to reach uptown’s affluent shoppers — a sector that is underserved by designers, he said.
The strategy seems to be paying off, considering the average Nicole Miller retail purchase at N Boutique is $650, Konheim said. Nicole Miller accounts for about 25 percent of the women’s apparel sold in the store. The designer’s party dresses retailing for around $300 are popular with N Boutique shoppers, said Lenn Shebar, a former Parsons School of Design staffer who coowns the boutique with Evans and Larry Ortiz. Robin Kramer, whose Kramer Design Group creates retail environments and develops brand concepts, is also an equity partner in the business.
There are plans to open stores in other major U.S. cities, and possibly also in Tokyo, London and Paris within the next five years. A second store is expected to open at the end of next year, Shebar said, although he declined to name where.
As for the demand for Miller’s dresses, Shebar said, “They’re fun and flirty. They look good in a range of sizes, and they’re a great value.”
Tracy Reese, BCBG, Byron Lars and Marimekko are among the other women’s apparel brands in the two-level store. Denim labels include Chip & Pepper, Citizens of Humanity, G-Star, Earnest Sewn, Miss Sixty, and Energie. Home collections such as those from Jonathan Adler and Red Flower are also available.
The store is across 116th Street from Amy Ruth’s, a Southern-style restaurant that attracts customers from across the city. But N Boutique is an anomaly in the uptown retail scene. Strivers Gardens, a residential and retail complex at 300 West 135th Street (which currently only has a Chase Manhattan bank and a Duane Reade), caters to a professional crowd, and Harlem shoppers want equally stylish clothes, Konheim said.
“Everyone thinks there’s a lot of discounting uptown, but this crowd doesn’t want anything marked down or secondary,” he said.
Upscale retail and professional offices are envisioned as a major part of Strivers Gardens, with a total of 37,000 square feet of commercial space to be leased. An apparel company planned to open a store there, but bowed out because its 125th Street store was doing so well, said Robert Friedman, the developer of the site along with his brother Bernard. They received 4,900 applications for 169 apartments, with the average one selling for $300,000, Robert Friedman said.
The makeup of the neighborhood stands to change drastically, should nearby Columbia University’s expansion plans for a new West Harlem campus come to fruition. The complex would cover almost 18 acres from 125 to 133rd Streets. However, local officials and residents have been critical of the proposal, saying it would destroy the area’s communal feel and would wipe out many of its tenements, mom-and-pop shops and small manufacturers.
As a member of Harlem’s Chamber of Commerce and a board member for NYC & Co., the city’s official tourism marketing organization, Konheim praised the chamber’s chairman, Lloyd Williams, for “making it easy to move uptown.”
“What no one understands is, Harlem is a great tourist attraction for tourists from Finland, Spain and all over Europe,” Konheim said. “The problem is getting tourists from downtown. Harlem has the greatest square footage [available for development] compared to any other neighborhood in the city.”
He continued, “The last thing Lloyd wants is a mirror image of downtown. He is crafting a finely tuned uptown personality that will attract downtown buyers because of the newness and the difference. He has made the uptown experience so friendly that customers look forward to the next visit.”